Live Healthy Today, Stay Active Tomorrow

Disability risk in old age may be increased by poor diet and inadequate physical activity

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Whether it is driving yourself to the grocery store or performing routine housework, staying independent in old age can make life much easier. New research suggests that to have independence later in life, everyone should pick up healthy habits today.

According to a new study, physical inactivity, poor diet and smoking were all linked to an increased risk of disability in old age. 

On the positive side, people can change these behaviors and adopt a healthy lifestyle to lower their risk of disability later on in life.

"Maintain a healthier lifestyle to stay active in old age."

This study was conducted by Alexis Elbaz, research director at INSERM, Centre for Research and Epidemiology and Population Health, Social and Occupational Determinants of Health in Villejuif, France, along with colleagues from France and UK.

The goal of this study was to examine the relationship between unhealthy behaviors and the risk for disability.

Disability is difficulty performing daily activities that are essential to living independently.

Unhealthy behaviors such as physical inactivity, poor diet and smoking have been shown to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke and other conditions. This study took a closer look at the relationship between these behaviors and disability.

The researchers looked at data from 3,982 participants who were 65 years or  older. Of the participants, 2,410 (60.5 percent) were female.

The participants were interviewed at the beginning of the study about their lifestyle. They were asked about their habits, including smoking, drinking alcohol, diet and physical activity.

The researchers termed the following as unhealthy behaviors: low or moderate physical activity, not consuming fruit and vegetables at least once a day, smoking or having quit smoking less than 15 years ago and consumption or previous heavy consumption of alcohol.

The participants were then followed for 12 years to look at the presence of disability. Disability was measured by checking whether participants could perform a range of activities such as physical work, driving a vehicle, shopping and dressing themselves.

If the participants could not do any one of these activities, they were considered disabled.

The researchers also looked at other conditions the participants had, such as obesity, depression and cardiovascular disease, that might be a cause of disability.

Of the participants, 1,236 (31 percent) were disabled. Disability rates were higher in those aged over 90 years as compared to those aged 65 to 70 years.

Participants who were disabled were older, more likely to be women and less educated as compared to those without a disability.

Those who reported low or moderate physical activity had a 72 percent higher risk of disability than those who reported high physical activity. Participants who did not consume fruits and vegetables at least once a day had a 24 percent increased risk of disability than those who had a healthy diet.

Smokers and ex-smokers had a 26 percent higher risk of disability than non-smokers.

Participants who had all three unhealthy behaviors — smoking, poor diet and inadequate physical activity — were twice as likely to develop disability as those who did not have these behaviors.

Only part of the association between disability and unhealthy behavior was explained by other conditions the participants had, such as obesity, depression or cardiovascular disease. According to the study, this finding means that the unhealthy behaviors could have directly influenced disability.

There were a few limitations to the study. The participants were asked about unhealthy behaviors at the beginning of the study, but it was not known if these behaviors changed during the 12 year period. Also, the researchers did not consider the fact that some people might recover from their disability.

It must also be noted that an association between unhealthy behaviors and disability rates does not mean that these behaviors directly cause disability.

Of course, all the unhealthy behaviors the researchers looked at in this study can be changed. So, according to the authors of the study, people can slow the progression of disability by engaging in healthier behaviors.

This study was published July 23 in the BMJ.

The study was funded by INSERM, a French public research institute, the Sanofi-Synthelabo Company and other organizations. The authors did not disclose any relevant financial relationships or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
July 27, 2013
Last Updated:
July 29, 2013